Captives and Conquest: Why Was Aztec Warfare So Brutal? | History Hit

Captives and Conquest: Why Was Aztec Warfare So Brutal?

Aztec warriors as depicted in the Codex Mendoza, which was created in 1541.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico from 1300 to 1521, the Aztecs built a vast empire across the region. At its height, the Aztec Empire covered 200,000 square kilometres and controlled some 371 city-states across 38 provinces.

As a result, whether it was acquiring new territory, quashing rebellions or capturing sacrificial victims, the equilibrium of Aztec life was maintained by war. Warfare was a fundamental part of the culture, with nearly all males expected to participate in battle – referred to in Nahuatl poetry as ‘the song of shields’ – for both religious and political reasons.

From training rituals to battle strategies, here’s the history of Aztec warfare.

Warfare was ingrained into Aztec mythology

Aztecs believed that their sun and war god Huitzilopochtli had been fully armed and prepared for war since birth. Indeed, the first thing he is said to have done upon his birth was to kill his 400 siblings before dismembering and scattering their bodies, which then became stars in the night sky that served as a regular reminder of the importance of warfare to the Aztec people.

Moreover, the god Huitzilopochtli’s name is derived from the words for ‘hummingbird’ and ‘left’. Aztecs believed that dead warriors helped Huitzilopochtli defeat yet more enemies in the warrior afterlife, before eventually returning as hummingbirds on the ‘left side’ of the world, the south.

Important human sacrifices were regularly made to Huitzilopochtli at his temple at the peak of the great pyramid Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.

Warriors were trained from a young age

A representation of a Quauholōlli, a mace-like weapon, from the Codex Duran, which was completed in around 1581.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

From a young age, all Aztec males excluding nobles were expected to be trained as warriors. This was partly in response to the fact that Aztec society as a whole had no standing army. Instead, warriors would be drafted to a campaign through a ‘tequital’, a payment of goods and labour. Outside of battle, many warriors were simple farmers or tradesmen.

At birth, baby boys would be given the warrior symbols of a specially-made shield and arrow to hold. The umbilical cord, along with the shield and arrow, would then be ceremoniously taken to a battlefield to be buried by a renowned warrior.

From the age of 15, boys were formally trained to become warriors. They attended special military compounds where they were taught about weaponry and tactics alongside being regaled with stories from battle veterans. Boys would later accompany the Aztec army on campaigns as baggage handlers.

When they finally became warriors and took their first captive, boys were allowed to cut off the lock or ‘piochtli’ hair at the back of their necks which they had worn since the age of ten. This symbolised their transition into being true warriors and men.

The aim of warfare was to dominate not kill

The Aztec Empire depended on trade, agriculture and income from captured territories. The Aztecs’ primary objective was therefore not to mercilessly slaughter enemies, but instead subjugate other cities and lands to extract wealth, extend their lucrative trade network and capture people for human sacrifice.

Defeated enemies did not necessarily have to give up their way of life, and conquered rulers were often left in power, with only their temples destroyed and religious idols captured and displayed in Tenochtitlan as tokens of war and newly-captured territory.

This page from the Codex Tovar, completed in the late 16th century, depicts the burning of a temple from an annexed city.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Instead, the defeated party generally agreed to pay regular tributes in both goods and people. Tributes were often in the form of slaves, military service, precious metals, jewellery, fabrics, exotic feathers, foodstuffs and weaponry.

The head of the military was the king

The military commander-in-chief was the king, known as the tlatoani. He was assisted by two second-in-commands, who had to name their successors prior to battle so that they could be immediately replaced if they were killed in combat.

The military itself was composed of a large number of commoners who possessed only basic military training and were organised into wards that were commanded by leaders. A smaller number of professional warriors who belonged to the nobility were organised into warrior societies according to their achievements.

Priests also took part in warfare by carrying the effigies of deities into battle.

Bravery in battle was rewarded with privileges

Being a warrior in Aztec society was one of the few ways that commoners could improve their social standing. Though diverse units of warriors with varying levels of status reported to the council, brave and able soldiers were allowed to rise in the ranks if they took a certain number of captives.

Symbols of rank included the right to wear certain feather headdresses, cloaks and jewellery, such as lip, nose and earplugs. Officers were permitted to wear ensigns made of reeds and feathers. Even the lowest ranks could win privileges through heroic deeds such as the right to eat in the royal palaces, have concubines and drink beer in public.

The most prestigious units were the cuauhchique (‘shaved ones’) and the otontin or otomies. These elite units could only be joined by warriors who had displayed at least 20 acts of bravery in battle and were already members of the prestigious jaguar and eagle warrior groups. These groups were regarded as nobility, with the warriors within them working full time as a kind of police force for the city-state.

The Aztecs were always fighting

This page from the Codex Tovar depicts the scene of a gladiatorial sacrificial rite, celebrated on the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli (Feast of the Flaying of Men).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Everyone in Aztec society benefitted from a successful battle or campaign. Alongside the desire for new territory and physical goods, prisoners captured during warfare were sacrificed to the gods which ensured continued benevolence to the Aztecs.

Obtaining the prisoners was another matter, and required the Aztecs to constantly go on campaigns to acquire sacrificial victims. Indeed, both sides agreed in advance that the losers would provide warriors for sacrifice. The Aztecs believed that the blood of sacrificial victims, especially of brave warriors, fed their god Huitzilopochtli.

These campaigns were known as ‘Flower Wars’, since the defeated warriors and future sacrifice victims were decorated in splendid feather war costumes as they were transported back to Tenochtitlan. Awaiting them was a sacrificial process that involved having their heart removed before their corpse was skinned, dismembered and decapitated.

Their method of warfare contributed to their downfall

Aztecs were fierce fighters. Upon seeing their enemy, the first weapons used were dart throwers, slings, spears and bows and arrows. When engaging in hand-to-hand combat, razor-sharp obsidian clubs, swords and daggers were used. As fierce warriors, often their mere presence and the threat of war was enough for other Mesoamerican cities to surrender.

This isn’t to say they were never defeated: in 1479, their army of 32,000 was slaughtered by one of their prime enemies, the Tarascans. However, this was the beginning of a number of successive defeats that would eventually lead to the downfall of the empire.

November 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the meeting of Hernan Cortes and Aztec ruler Montezuma at the gates of the magnificent Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. Caroline Dodds Pennock is a specialist in the Aztecs. She takes Dan on a whirlwind tour through the events of that extraordinary year and the gigantic impact of the Spanish conquest that followed.
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Aztecs would engage in pre-battle diplomacy and didn’t rely upon surprise or massacring their enemy. This gave Spanish conquerors a distinct advantage when they sought to colonise Mexico in 1519. Moreover, conquered people under the Aztecs were more than happy to side with European invaders, with token victories such as the Flower Wars paling in comparison to the military prowess of the colonisers.

After centuries of violent expansion, the Aztec Empire was consigned to history in 1521 when the Spanish seized control of Tenochtitlán.

Lucy Davidson

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